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Lord Quirk: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to join the noble Lord, Lord Baker, and others in celebrating the new DNB. But let this be a time also to celebrate the old DNB; that magnificent achievement of two phenomenal scholars, Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. Both, I am proud to say as ex-Vice Chancellor, had a close association with the University of London, Stephen having studied at King's College in the Strand before going up to Cambridge, and Lee, long after coming down from Oxford, became the first professor of English at what is now Queen Mary College.

Both were prominent among the "Eminent Victorians", as Lytton Strachey dubbed the two or three generations of people who changed our world: engineers, scientists, historians, thinkers, artists, philologists. Typically, they made their achievements in their own time and on their own resources, long before the days of publicly funded well-found laboratories or university-supplied secretarial help and the like. Often these resources were slim. Think of James Murray working on the mighty multi-volumed OED in what his granddaughter called a, "damp and unwholesome den" with his feet in a wooden box to mitigate the "chill unwarmed air".

Stephen and Lee were more fortunate as regards such creature comforts, but the work on which they embarked was even more challenging than Murray's, with far less by way of precedent to guide them. In his superb biography of 1984, Noel Annan (and how he would have relished and enriched this debate today) records how Stephen was besieged,

and by clergymen who sent the names of,

And when publication began, it was even worse with,

from those whose kinsmen had been inadequately treated or [worse] excluded.

sobbed an Army widow,

Yet by the end of the 19th century, the job was done, and the 60-odd stately volumes became a model for such work worldwide, recording as they do the lives of nearly 40,000 people who were significant in the British Isles during a period of no less than two millennia. Seldom have the words of Horace been quoted with less hyperbole: "Monumentum aere perennius".

It was only after the DNB was published that the British Academy was established, but it will come as no surprise that both Lee and Stephen were early
 
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fellows. It is therefore singularly appropriate that, when almost a century later plans were afoot for a new DNB, my immediate successor as president, Sir Anthony Kenny, obtained additional funds from government and proceeded to plan with OUP a joint programme to produce what is now appropriately called the Oxford DNB. Although envisaged as a 50:50 funding partnership, it certainly did not work out like that. In total, the academy paid out just under £4 million (a huge sum of course by academic and academy standards) but the OUP's contribution came to no less than £22 million.

The goal was not just to perform the obvious, incorporating the decennial supplements of 20th-century VIP mortality into the original DNB lives at their appropriate alphabetical slots. There was also the need to correct the old lives as a result of a century's historical research. There was the opportunity, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, has reminded us, with the help of the National Portrait Gallery, to provide actual images of biographical subjects. That has been achieved on a most generous scale, and roughly one in five of the 55,000 biographies is thus enhanced.

Moreover, the marvels of IT provided tools that Stephen and Lee would not have dreamt about. Although IT made the editorial work easier than theirs and far quicker (only 12 years to completion, on target) it also presented challenges to do things that would never have occurred to Stephen and Lee, not least continuous updating and multimedia publication.

As we have been reminded, however, there were judgmental, social and intellectual challenges, too. From the time of its publication, and increasingly throughout the 20th century, the DNB was criticised on the grounds of what we now call inclusiveness. One had a better chance of getting into the old DNB if one were a politician, general or poet than if one were an inventor, industrialist, wealth-creator, entertainer, athlete or clown.

Lord Baker of Dorking: Or all of them, my Lords.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, above all, one had a better chance if one were male rather than female. Indeed, one of the supplementary volumes sought to address such issues by looking back through the entire run of the DNB and producing, in 1993, the wittily entitled Missing Persons. It is worth noting that, whereas in the old DNB only 3 per cent of the 40,000 lives recorded are women, among the 1,000 "missing persons", the percentage shoots up to 12 per cent.

By then, of course, work on the new DNB was already in progress, with a joint OUP and British Academy supervisory committee chaired by the eminent historian, Sir Keith Thomas. An early, inspired move in February 1992 was to appoint Colin Matthew as editor, fresh from his work on Gladstone's diaries. The story of his quite awesome achievement in scholarship, management and leadership is splendidly told by Brian Harrison in that authoritative and wide-ranging introduction to the new Oxford DNB that I
 
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have been privileged to see. Doubtless Harrison is right in saying, such was the momentum already built up by October 1999, that the project could remain exactly on course even after Matthew's sudden and shocking death that month. But everyone working on the DNB over the past four years well knows how much the final success is due to the excellence of Matthew's successor, on which Brian Harrison is of course silent.

That success rests in great part on the sheer quality of the writing and I am glad that some of the authors are here to hear me say that. Under the expert but kindly editorial guidance given to the astonishing roll of 10,000 authors from all over the world—12 from Japan—compared with the mere 653 authors that were enrolled by Stephen and Lee. There are now nearly 55,000 lives compared with under 40,000 in Stephen and Lee. The entire text of over 62 million words was keyed into the electronic form which will lie behind the printed volumes by computer engineers in Pondicherry.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but the nine minutes allocated to each speaker has now expired.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I have nearly finished. Amid those immense changes Matthew and Harrison have stuck steadfastly to the tone set by Stephen and Lee. The life stories are verbal portraits where the warts are allowed to show. Eulogy is frowned on and, as Alfred Ainger put it long ago, the policy was and has remained, "no flowers by request". I apologise for over-running.

Lord Briggs: My Lords, I am happy to take part in this debate and I should like to begin, as other have done, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for having taken the initiative in raising not only the issue of celebrating the new great work of scholarship, but of what we would like the Government to do in universities, schools and other places to follow it through.

Like others present, I have been a regular contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography under successive editors in the supplement series. I pay my own sense of gratitude to the supplements and to one editor in particular, Lord Blake, who was an esteemed figure in this House, and whose views, not only on constitutional history, but on many other questions, were always listened to with great respect.

In writing my pieces I was aware that I was engaging in hard work for which I was paid very little. There has never been a great deal of money for contributors in relation to the DNB. I also had the more interesting and difficult tasks of helping successive editors of the supplements in selecting which characters from the 20th century they would include in the next decennial volume. That was a somewhat daunting and dangerous privilege. It was a much greater privilege that carried with it a sense of responsibility when I was
 
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also asked to give advice about which names should be excluded from the old DNBs and included in the new one. I was involved in an act of "retributive justice", as it would now be called.

The work of Leslie Stephen has rightly been admired today. It is just 100 years since he died. He was a remarkable man. It would be a mistake to think that he was interested only in literature as he was a good athlete and mountaineer. He once performed the prodigious feat of walking from Cambridge to London in 12 hours to go to a dinner party. There were no expenses on that occasion for him, either.

I think that the new effort—this great new contribution to learning—is very different from the old one in that, from the beginning, it has been a triumph of team work, and not just of individual effort. The team work has been tremendous and I pay a tribute, too, briefly to Colin Matthew, whom I knew well and on whom, for example, the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead depended very heavily in his work on Gladstone. I also pay a tribute to Brian Harrison, whose approach to history has always been refreshingly new.

Most importantly, the DNB reflects new attitudes towards history and the methods of history. It includes far more family history, which is a subject of great interest in the country; it includes far more work on women's history than perhaps has been appreciated in this brief discussion today; and it brings in every kind of person—not only benefactors and malefactors, as has been pointed out, but also one special category, which is picked out by Brian Harrison in one of his pieces about the new volume. He picks out what he calls "quirky" people. I am sure that quirky people are not named after my noble friend Lord Quirk. I do not know quite why they are called "quirky" but he will tell me because he is just as interested in words as he is in people.

Because the biography is so comprehensive, it is more than a great achievement in the humanities; it is probably the biggest contribution to the history of scholarship in the humanities—certainly in my own lifetime. More than that, it covers all aspects of life, and the technology is there just as much as the history.

It is also a great triumph of national production. When I read of the contributions to the production of the new volumes, I see that they include, for example, places as different and as distant from each other as Frome and Boston. We even have a picture of Brian Harrison looking at the printing works where the volumes appear. In other words, it is not only an Oxford venture; it is a national one.

I conclude by saying that perhaps one should focus on the on-line edition of the biography because, in relation to this kind of scholarship, that is generally new. Access to it will enable all kinds of detailed research to be carried out on every kind of subject. Access to it in schools will help pupils who are asked to carry out a piece of research to do so on the basis of some authoritative information. Lastly, it enables the volumes to be kept up to date. That is terribly
 
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important, not only in bringing new entries into the new dictionary but also in revising old ones, and revising is terribly important.

In the great celebrations held in 1900 on the appearance of the first volumes of the DNB, the Bishop of London, Mandell Creighton, the famous historian, confessed at a great lunch which was held that he had made many mistakes in his own contributions to the DNB and he would seek in future to correct them. Perhaps I may hope that all contributors will follow in that admirable line of action. I also hope that the Government will have the vision to recognise this as something of which we can be really proud internationally. It is a great achievement, and anyone who has been involved in it deserves the highest praise.


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